Beautiful Skin – Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid

In the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the United States government defined cosmetics as products for cleaning, beautifying, promoting attractiveness or altering appearance.  They were not defined by their ingredients, but rather what they were designed to do.

Unlike drugs, cosmetics are largely unregulated. They are not required to be tested by the FDA or by any other governmental entity before they are released on the market.  In other words, they are tested on consumers when we buy the product.  The following is a brief discussion of five common harmful cosmetic ingredients.

Talc is finely powdered magnesium silicate.  It has a long history of use in eyeshadow, powdered blush, face powder, dusting powder, and most notably, baby powder. Unfortunately, talc is also structurally quite close to asbestos.  Like asbestos, tiny airborne particles can easily be inhaled and accumulate in the lungs.   The dangers of talc are multiplied by the specific area of the body where it is commonly applied both in babies and adults, namely the genitals. Talc can easily migrate up the vaginal canal. Talc granules have been found in ovarian tumors, and women who use talc are three times more likely to develop ovarian cancer.

Formaldehyde is a common disinfectant, germicide and fungicide in shampoos and mascara, hidden from consumers under the names: quaternium-15, diazolidinyl urea, and DMDM hydantoin, which are in fact highly dangerous formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.  It is interesting to note that some products containing these toxic chemicals are required by the United States government to carry warning labels, but shampoo and mascara are not.  Formaldehyde is a suspected human carcinogen.  It has been found to cause DNA damage and inhibit repair.  Even at very low levels, it is an irritant to the skin, eyes, and respiratory passages.


Propylene Glycol

Propylene Glycol is a petroleum derivative and is the most common ingredient found in commercial moisturizers and creams (other than water itself).  Its moisture-carry properties also make it a valuable ingredient in antifreeze and hydraulic brake fluid formulas.  It is, not surprisingly, extremely inexpensive. Propylene glycol has been cited as a neurotoxin by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.  In addition, according to its Material Safety Data Sheet, it has been linked with kidney damage and liver abnormalities.

Para-hydroxybenzoic acid esters (methyl, propyl, ethyl, butyl) are the most commonly used cosmetic preservatives in the US.  They are found in an array of products ranging from shampoos to face creams. Parabens are popular because they are inexpensive and also have a wide spectrum of antimicrobial activity.  Unfortunately, they mimic estrogen and have been associated with reproductive damage.  One study of parabens found they had estrogenic potencies comparable to bisphenol-A, a common ingredient in many plastics implicated in birth defects, obesity, early stage breast and prostate cancer and other adverse health effects.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is undoubtedly the number one lathering ingredient in all American cosmetic preparations that foam.  This includes shampoo, bubble bath, liquid soap, and toothpaste.  It is used by the cosmetic industry because of its tremendous lathering properties, coupled with the fact that it is staggeringly cheap.  In the spirit of experimentation, I recently bought a liter of sodium lauryl sulfate from a chemical supply house for $8.00.  A single drop in running water filled my bathtub with bubbles.  How cheap can you get? No wonder it is actually quite difficult to find a commercial preparation that foams that doesn’t contain sodium lauryl sulfate.

Undoubtedly because it is so effective and cheap, the many dangers of sodium lauryl sulfate are largely ignored.  To begin with, sodium lauryl sulfate is extremely drying and actually damages the stratum corneum of the skin, causing a reduction in normal barrier functions.  Its lipid dissolving qualities further abuse the skin by damaging its moisture retaining ability at the cellular level.

Sodium lauryl sulfate can also react with other ingredients commonly found in cosmetic products that foam to form nitrosamines, a class of secondary compounds formed from secondary amines by nitrous acid.  Nitrosamines, are considered highly carcinogenic.  As they are easily absorbed through the skin, nitrosamine contamination reaches far higher levels than can be absorbed by the body in other ways.

The fact that sodium lauryl sulfate is so harmful to the skin makes it a strange choice for skincare products, but its inclusion is almost all American toothpastes that foam is stranger still.  Toothpaste does not have to foam to be effective.  A mouth full of suds is simply something Americans have come to expect since the introduction of foaming toothpaste in the 1940’s.  Unfortunately, the foam is actually bad for you teeth and has greatly contributed to the modern epidemic of gum disease.  Its effect on gums is similar to its effect on skin: it is an irritant, preventing gums from healing themselves, an ope invitation to gum disease.  Norwegian researchers found that when people prone to cancer sores stopped using sodium lauryl sulfate, their incidence of cancer sores fell by 70 percent.

Dadd, Debra Lynn, Home Safe Home, Tarcher/Putnam, New York (1977)
Erickson, Kim, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Contemporary Books, McGraw Hill (2002)
“Counter Intelligence,” Erickson, Kim, Delicious Living, March 2003, p.80
Hampton, Aubrey, Natural Organic Hair and Skin Care, Organica Press, Tampa (1987)
Vance, Judi, Beauty to Die For: The Cosmetic Consequence, iUniverse, Lincoln, NE (2000)
Winter, Ruth, The Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, Three Rivers, New York (1999)

** The above excerpt is taken from the work of Patricia Kazmierowski, a lovely student of mine years ago.  This is her brief guide to toxic cosmetic ingredients.  More information about Patricia’s work is available at

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  1. Ugh. Beware of what you put on your body. Thanks for the reference on toxic ingredients in cosmetics and shampoos. I have used the environmental working group website – skin deep in the past few years. Its a database of cosmetics and a scale of their relative toxicity based on ingredients. Its worth a look! See link above.

    Comment by Katherine Walters — April 11, 2013 @ 3:04 pm


    Comment by Katherine Walters — April 11, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

  3. I’m careful about the moisturizers I use on my body and face, but I’ve never put much thought into my mascara. I will be promptly checking it for formaldehyde, though. Thanks for the information! I’m kind of ashamed I didn’t think of it sooner.

    Comment by Kim O'Berry — August 7, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

  4. Very interesting information, and it reminds me how many animals are made to suffer when they are used to “test” these ingredients . . . Thanks for posting.

    Comment by Ann Williams — August 11, 2013 @ 10:31 pm

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